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Response to Review of Health, Medicine, and the Sea: Australian Voyages, c.1815-1860

I thank Dr Akiyama for this positive review of Health, Medicine and the Sea. Given this valuable opportunity to respond, I would like to give more of a sense of some of the key arguments and themes that I feel are central to the book. I wanted to use the voyages of emigrants and convicts who sailed to Australia in the first half of the 19th century to go beyond a sanitary emphasis on progress in maritime history. By bringing a whole range of historical factors together – including penal developments, environmental knowledge, medical practice, migrants’ complicated life histories, and the heated politics of colonial status and immigration – I wanted to use these voyages to bring together the histories of medicine, migration, punishment and colonialism. I was slightly surprised by Dr Akiyama’s emphasis on a military viewpoint; while naval surgeons’ journals from convict and emigrant ships constitute a main source, this is a book primarily about free and forced migrants.

The politics of migration are central to chapters one and six: inspections at ports, whether on departure or arrival were not simply about rejecting emigrants and convicts who might endanger the health of the voyage, or of the colony to which they sought admittance, but fundamentally about the changing politics of colonial migration in the first half of the 19th century. For example, rejecting sick or aged convicts at departure raised key questions about what the system of penal transportation was actually for (to punish, or to colonise?), a debate that has long been central to the historiography of early Australia. On arrival in Australia, I see quarantine not primarily as a medical intervention to prevent the arrival of disease, but a political moment, in which new arrivals learnt exactly what colonists thought of them as they made the transition from emigrants to immigrants; it is also, however, about the opportunities that they took to respond.

If quarantine was primarily a story about immigration, the reviewer is right to observe that scurvy was essentially a convict problem. The point about scurvy outbreaks on convict transports in the 1830s and 1840s, and the experiments that took advantage of these occurrences (the focus of chapter four) is not that naval surgeons simply reinforced James Lind’s conclusions about lemon juice from a century before. Rather, it is about how being at sea illuminated the severe effects of new kinds of penal reform in prisons such as Millbank and Pentonville and about how surgeons made moral and medical decisions in their attempts to understand this new manifestation of an old complaint. Bodies are also key to chapter five, where I discuss relationships between convicts, emigrants, sailors and surgeons above and below decks. While Dr Akiyama sees the positive in opportunities for advancing medical knowledge and introducing vaccines to the colonies, I saw a much more ambiguous story, in which procedures such as post-mortem examinations and compulsory vaccinations at sea provide new contexts for a key issue in 19th-century social history: that of medicine’s access to poor bodies.

In chapter two I focus on the way that internal ship spaces were reconfigured to carry emigrants and convicts (contrary to Akiyama’s comment that the internal environment of vessels was the same whether they carried military men or civilians), and then look beyond the ship in chapter three to travellers’ engagement with the tropical Atlantic. Surgeons did create strict regimes on convict and emigrant ships; they were obsessed with drying, scrubbing and airing not just because they wanted to make their ships healthier, but because their medical worldview made them terrified of dampness in all its manifestations. Beyond medical theory, these fears also help us to understand changes in the strange ceremonies that occurred at the equator, and why, in the early 19th century, the character of the ‘Doctor’ became central to many of these rituals, forcing his hideous pills, shavings and medicines – sometimes violently – on unfortunate initiates. These liminal moments reveal starkly what sanitary medical authority could mean to the men and women who sailed under the surgeons’ regime. Emigrants and convicts were immersed (sometimes literally) in a constantly changing maritime world as they travelled around Africa then entered the desolate expanse of water between the Cape of Good Hope and Australia. The opportunity to think environmentally on these different scales, and in different regions of the ocean, was an aspect of this project I found particularly exciting, and I hope that readers of this book will gain a sense of the material presence and rich importance of the sea in this history of colonial voyaging.